The checkpoint was opened on Sunday at the Sobruak village in Tambon Wiang. The government claims it will promote tourism and border trade but critics believe it is aimed at facilitating gamblers who will cross the border to the casino in the King Romans of Laos Asian & Tourism Development Zone.
Actually, even without the checkpoint, many Thais reportedly cross the border to gamble at the King Romans Casino.
The Mekong River maritime boundary in the so-called Golden Triangle area bordering Laos and Myanmar is not long – but the zone is notorious for drug-smuggling routes and uncontrolled border crossings by Thais who travel to gamble in casinos in Myanmar and Laos.
Efforts to benefit the casino on the Lao side were clearly seen when a sign reading “Golden Triangle permanent border checkpoint” was erected at the area long before it was officially opened.
Moreover, the Golden Triangle checkpoint is only 10 kilometres from the permanent border checkpoint in front of the Chiang Saen district office. Its opening made it the fourth checkpoint in Chiang Rai and the second one in Chiang Saen.
The Lao side opened its border checkpoint about a year earlier – after the King Romans project, owned by a Chinese firm, had started on the 7,500-rai plot. The firm has a 75-year leasing contract on the plot from the Lao government and could extend the contract to 99 years.
Long before the Golden Triangle checkpoint was opened, many Thais crossed the border at the spot, and local officials turned a blind eye to the unlawful border crossing.
Earlier, certain security agencies tried to regulate the border crossing in the area for security reasons but they had to back off due to political influence. The Harbour Department also prohibited the use of the pier at the Sobruak village for safety reasons – but the provincial administration disagreed.
Eventually, the Interior Ministry issued a directive dated May 3 to open the Golden Triangle permanent border checkpoint at Sombruak village from May 19 onward. The checkpoint is allowed to open from 6am to 8pm while other border checkpoints in the province are open from 6am to 6pm.
Currently, the Golden Triangle checkpoint has only a small pier that can accommodate only some 10 people at a time. The pier is connected to the shore by a makeshift wooden stairway. There is an immigration booth but not a permanent immigration office.
Boontham Tiprasong, chairman of the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce, said he wondered how the Golden Triangle checkpoint would benefit border trade when the area is not used for loading or unloading goods. And the checkpoint is located near the old pier authorised by the Ports Authority of Thailand for loading and unloading goods.
Atthaphan Rangsi, chief adviser of the Border Trade Club in Chiang Saen, said traders were worried whether the Chiang Saen checkpoint would later be downgraded from permanent checkpoint to a temporary one because it was too close to the new Golden Triangle checkpoint.
But Wirasak Sirisit, the Chiang Saen district chief, expressed full support for the new checkpoint, saying it would eventually facilitate tourism in the area. He said about 10,000 tourists crossed the border in his district each month.
Wirasak said he would seek a budget of Bt15 million from the Interior Ministry to build the checkpoint building which would be done in one year and the building would provide all the necessary services, including a Customs checkpoint and plant checkpoint.
A new service would soon be opened to allow officials to issue border passes at the spot for tourists, he added.